MUSIC / Victory with a warhorse

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SOME OPERAS only realise their potential in the imagination of the listener. The Trojans is one of them: a score of epic ambition which engaged Berlioz in the quintessentially Romantic pursuit of what was well-nigh impossible. Its length - five acts with four hours of music - is no more than averagely Wagnerian. But its dramatic scale is vast. More happens in those four hours than in any Wagner opera; and it involves a rambling cast of principals, a massive orchestra and chorus, and a requirement for spectacle that exceeds what can be achieved with taste and British state funding.

It was never attempted, complete, until the middle of this century; and by then the focus of Berlioz scholarship and performance had passed out of France and into Britain. The first full edition of the Trojans score was published in 1969 by Hugh MacDonald. The first performances of that score were at Covent Garden; and the conductor was Colin Davis, who was then forging his reputation as the foremost Berlioz interpreter of modern times. In the same year his recording of The Trojans was issued; and it remains definitive - perhaps the peak achievement of his life as a musician.

Davis has not conducted The Trojans for 20 years, so it could only be a special event when he returned to it for concert performances this week at the Barbican - and it was nothing less. These were performances that lived with extraordinary vividness in the mind's ear: heady with the pageantry of Troy and Carthage summoned up by off-stage bands and on-stage choral singing of outstanding brilliance, with the perfumed sweetness of ancient summer nights wafting through the introduction to the 'Nuit d'ivresse' duet. You could sense these things; first because Berlioz programmes such specifically descriptive content into the orchestral music, and second because Sir Colin Davis has such a masterful command of how to 'voice' the images. He makes the score such a self-sufficient showcase for orchestral story-telling that to see something physically happening would be superfluous; and the LSO unfolds the story with a glorious intensity of colour.

It amounts to what is surely the most potent and exhilarating playing London concert audiences have heard all year - I left the hall insensible with pleasure, reeling like a drunkard - and there can be no doubt that Sir Colin, 20 years on, still has no equal in this repertory. Compared with his recording, there's a greater sense of urgency, building a seamless momentum through what is actually a number opera (for all its Romantic excess, The Trojans works to classical structures), and running Acts I and II together without a break - something you could never do on stage. And although for these performances he carried the opera across two nights, dividing it into separate parts (Troy and Carthage), as Berlioz sanctioned but never wanted, the coherence of the score was unassailable. The day between the two parts simply vanished. And what we had from Davis was the whole - ballets and pantomimes and all. You rarely get that on the stage. In 1990 when The Trojans opened the Bastille in Paris it was, even then, truncated.

As for the singing, it had to fight the orchestra for profile but was none the less remarkable, with hard-edged, chiselled dynamism from the London Symphony Chorus and a fascinating selection of soloists who were not big names but were direct, immediate and thrilling. Berlioz allocated to each part a mezzo heroine of contrasted character; and Jane Henschel's Cassandra in Part I had a

brilliant liquidity (not always squarely on the note but

wonderfully exciting) while Markella Hatziano's Dido in Part II was nobly rich of tone: slightly uneven, but done with great conviction and arresting power. Aeneas, the toughest role, sustained across the whole piece, was the Russian tenor Vladimir Bogachov, who lacked tendresse but had a fierce, focused projection with a glistening resonance and a controlled sob in the voice that was astonishingly forceful. And the cameo roles included younger singers of real worth: most obviously an enchanting, limpid, beautifully phrased Hylas from a promising young English tenor called Ian Bostridge.

In a word, this Trojans was a great occasion: something to be proud of at a time when the morale of London's music-making is at rock bottom, thanks to the Arts Council which, this week, voted itself and its members out of any right to continued existence. The incompetence with which the Council has addressed the issue of the London orchestras - now to be resolved next week, but who knows? - has turned into one of the most shaming episodes in the history of British arts administration. Thank God the LSO is out of it, and can plan ahead (as the other orchestras cannot) for the time when Colin Davis becomes Principal Conductor in 1995. They will be a formidable partnership.

Dublin is not a formidable opera centre; but it does have its own company, Opera Ireland, which has the current distinction of playing an obscure piece to packed houses. The piece is Lakme by Delibes, and its pull is the Act 1 duet for mezzo and soprano that features in the British Airways television commercial. Ironically, British Airways has stopped flying to Dublin and stopped advertising on Irish TV. But clearly the memory lingers; and the singers in question, American soprano Elizabeth Futral and Irish mezzo Kate McCarney, did their duet very nicely. Elaine Padmore, who runs Opera Ireland, is especially good at spotting international voices at an intermediate stage in their careers - when they have the maturity, the musicianship, but not quite the polish to be real (ie, expensive) stars. Ms Futral was exactly that. She handled the Bell Song with expert coloratura; and if she didn't radiate personality throughout the role - well, there's not much personality to find in it.

The problem with Lakme is that it's a second-rate amalgam of Madam Butterfly and Carmen, shifted to the milieu of the British Raj which provides a veneer of (generally bogus) exoticism but no real characters. Lakme (the Carmen/Butterfly) isn't enough of a temptress. Gerald (the Jose / Pinkerton) isn't enough of a rotter. All they do is behave nicely and agonise over their cross-cultural love - until she eats a poisoned flower and dies, which is not actually very dramatic. Nor did this production squeeze much drama from it. Everything looked under-funded. And I suspect the budget must have gone on the other item in Opera Ireland's season: a Boheme bought in from the Lucerne opera with traditional-ish sets and direction by Jean-Claude Auvray that was unremarkable except for the fact that his cast seemed to be living on the streets and not feeling the cold. Hardy types, these Bohemians.